NORTON, MASSACHUSETTS — Until recently U.S. policy makers were agreed that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide must return to Haiti as the legitimately elected head of state.
It now appears that prominent Republican legislators, elements in the State Department and the CIA see Father Aristide as an obstacle to the restoration of democracy in Haiti and are recommending that the U.S. no longer provide him with political support. In their view he is an anti-American demagogue who is mentally unstable and will provoke a blood bath against his opponents if he is allowed to return.
Father Aristide's friends within the Democratic Party have argued that criticism of him is based on a politically orchestrated disinformation campaign. In this view, the Haitian military, drug dealers, rogue intelligence elements and right-wing isolationists have all conspired to discredit the one man who could successfully restore democracy to Haiti.
It is undeniably true that the smearing of Father Aristide is disingenuous, mean-spirited and vicious, and originates from those groups that have the most to lose in a democratic Haiti. But, it does not follow that everything that has been said about Aristide is baseless and that there is no reason for apprehension about the kind of leadership he might bring to Haiti.
In recent issues of the New York Review of Books Mark Danner has wrestled with whether Father Aristide is a fit leader and has suggested that he is not. Mr. Danner reports that the Haitian priest defended the practice of ''necklacing'' to him in a personal interview. For Mr. Danner it was not so much that Father Aristide justified putting tires on people and then setting the tires and the people on fire, but how he justified the practice. It was, said Father Aristide, the ''will of the people.'' It had apparently not occurred to him that as the newly elected president of Haiti, he had a responsibility to stop vengeance seeking of this sort.
Amy Wilentz' ''The Rainy Season'' is a compelling account of Haiti just after the flight of Jean Claude Duvalier and before the election of Father Aristide. She had the prescience to make him the central character of her book, and her account is quite favorable.
But she, too, has stories of the priest ''tuning out'' emotionally, morally and intellectually at critical moments. The picture she paints is not of strong and resourceful leadership, but of shell-shocked passivity.
It is easy to imagine the prophet transmogrified into a sort of cork bobbing along on the froth of waves of popular rage.
I met Father Aristide in Port-au-Prince in January of 1987, almost a year after the fall of Duvalier and long before any mention of the presidency.
I was struck by both his passion and his language. I felt at the time that his vocabulary did not emerge from the sufferings of his people, but rather had attached itself to them. The Haitian people seemed living symbols incarnating the dramas of Christianity and Marxism, rather than the reality against which these concepts and ideas were weighed. I found it eerily disquieting that what appeared to be mysticism flourished just across the street from a festering slum that needed far more mundane attention.
Father Aristide is a kind and compassionate man, and he certainly is not a demagogue. What makes him questionable as a leader is that he is, as my students would put it, ''clueless.'' He sees, he feels, democracy in Haiti as an epic tale of resurrection and redemption.
He does not seem daunted by the challenges of ecological restoration, economic development, public health and constructing a civic culture. These issues, which are matters of life and death for Haiti, are at best an embellishment to the moral concerns that are so central to his thought.
So what should the United States do? Should we support him or not? In spite of his deficiencies, I believe that we should, and what we lack in enthusiasm, we should make up in vigor.
First, Father Aristide is not without virtue. He is a courageous man and his denunciations of injustice gave Haiti hope. Given the bestiality of the military regime, being ''clueless'' may have sustained him in a fight that more reasonable people would, and did, avoid.
Second, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the overwhelming choice of his people in the first free election in his country's history. He has given a voice to their suffering and the litany of their complaints is genuine. That his flaws may be theirs should not surprise us. Haitians have fled from government for all of their history, and with good reason. It will take time to shift gears and figure out how to use government as a tool for progress and emancipation. In any event, it is their history to make, not ours.